All in aday’s work

by Anna Ewart

On a Tuesday evening, R.T. Rybak was on his way to visit the campaign office of a fellow Twin Cities Democrat when a man, identifying himself as Bob the Republican, recognized him.

“You’re doing great things for this city,” Bob said.

Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr., a lifelong Minneapolitan, has been the city’s mayor since 2002. Elected in his first run for public office, Rybak has dealt with stabilizing the city’s budget, a surge in crime and the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

That Tuesday night, he visited first-term U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison. Rybak does his job as mayor by day, but campaigns for Ellison and Barack Obama by night.

“Having R.T. as mayor is really like having a community organizer as mayor,” Ellison said after discussing campaign strategy with Rybak.

“Bigger thoughts”

Since entering the public eye, Rybak has earned a reputation as an unusual-but-intriguing activist and politician – even named the Fittest Mayor in America by Men’s Fitness magazine.

“For much of my life I’ve been a little too hyper for most of the people around me,” Rybak said. “I finally found the job where I can’t have too much energy.”

Though he’s usually working by 7:30 a.m., the charismatic 52-year-old has participated in triathlons and spends weekends biking and cross-country skiing.

He keeps busy, but enjoys the job he’s wanted since he was 13.

After graduating from Boston College in 1978, he worked as a journalist for eight years at the Minneapolis Tribune, now the Star Tribune.

He’s had a slew of jobs since, taking an unconventional route to the mayor’s office. However, he credits his ability to listen and talk to people to his time as a journalist.

Steve Berg worked with Rybak at the Tribune, and said he remembers him as a good reporter and a fun person.

Berg said he first learned of Rybak’s mayoral aspirations in 1986, while the two were vacationing with their wives in Mexico. He recalls being surprised by the poolside conversation, but acknowledged that even then, Rybak was thinking “bigger thoughts.”

“He always had a vision in his head about how the city could be better,” Berg said.

Although Berg said he’s since written editorials criticizing his friend, he still thinks Rybak’s done a good job overall.

Defining times

When Rybak first took office, the city was facing a financial crisis. Berg said dealing with the intricacies of the job, such as the city budget, has made Rybak more serious and also more familiar with the city’s inner workings.

When the bridge went down last August, many credited Rybak with responding well to an unexpected crisis.

The most difficult part for Rybak was dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the victims, he said.

“It’s hard enough to deal with someone who’s facing the grief of death,” he said. “It wound up being even harder trying to comfort people who, for many days, just didn’t know.”

Although Rybak has attended the funerals and met with the families of young people killed by violence in Minneapolis, he’s taken flack in the past for not doing enough to address crime.

This year Minneapolis is expected to add 18 police officers to the force, making the department larger than it’s been since 2002, Rybak noted at his annual State of the City address last month.

Ward 5 Councilman Don Samuels, who represents much of the city’s north side, said he thinks Rybak has addressed issues most politicians tend to shy away from.

“I think he’s stepped up to the plate and invested a lot of political capital by stating that north Minneapolis is kind of a defining challenge for his tenure,” Samuels said.

In his first run for mayor, Rybak beat out incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton, the first black woman to be Minneapolis’ top official. In 2005, he was re-elected over fellow DFLer Peter McLaughlin.

Throughout his time as mayor, Rybak has dealt with difficult situations. Now, he said, some of the most exciting things he’s working on relate to young people.

At a recent visit to Patrick Henry High School, Rybak spoke to some 300 ninth-graders about what he calls the Minneapolis Promise, a program designed to get more high school students to graduate and go to college.

Students drilled the mayor on everything from his salary to his vote for president.

He makes about $90,000 a year, less than he’s made at previous jobs.

The auditorium erupted with cheers when Rybak answered he plans to vote for Sen. Barack Obama this November.

Key issues

Rybak was one of the first big-city mayors to endorse Obama for president, citing that Obama would be a dramatically different leader. He appreciates that, like himself, Obama was against the Iraq War from the beginning.

Rybak has attended many anti-war rallies since taking office, including some last month commemorating the war’s anniversary. Although it’s been five years, he thinks it’s important to continue voicing opposition.

He sees the war, the economy and climate change as parts of the same puzzle.

“Unless we develop a green economy, we’ll be fighting more wars for oil,” he said. “It’s all connected.”

As mayor, Rybak does what he can to promote environmental initiatives. He’s worked to get a settlement for residents affected by airport noise and pushed to have the Riverside coal plant converted to gas.

Since last fall, his official city of Minneapolis car has been a plug-in, gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius that gets 70-plus miles to the gallon. He used to drive a normal gas-electric hybrid Prius, but made the switch to a plug-in to promote the new technology.

During a recent trip through Minneapolis, Rybak and his director of security, Michael Kirchen, spotted state Rep. Phyllis Khan, DFL-Minneapolis, cruising around in her Prius. Like teenagers, the two rolled down the window to wave and shout at the fellow left-leaner.

He’s not your mother’s mayor

Kirchen doubles as Rybak’s driver and bodyguard, but prefers the title “spiritual adviser.” He said they’ve been known to sing along heartily to Barry Manilow while driving.

In spite of a penchant for the ’70s crooner, Rybak’s taste in music is more eclectic than one might think. His kids have recently gotten him into Gnarls Barkley and Outkast.

Adding to his hip factor, the father of two has crowdsurfed several times since becoming mayor – twice at First Avenue and once on the night of his 2005 re-election. He admits one of the stage dives was brought on, at least in part, by his children’s request not to embarrass them.

Charlie Rybak, 19, remembers the night his father crowdsurfed at a Rock for Democracy show at First Avenue.

“I’m glad he did, but at the time, when you’re standing there and your dad crowdsurfs with a bunch of people that are half his age, it can be a little embarrassing,” he said.

Reading about your stage-diving father’s politics on the front page can make for an unusual adolescence. However, Charlie said his dad always kept public and private life separate.

Rybak still manages to make it home for dinner most nights and attended the majority of Charlie’s high school sporting events.

“He’s the kind of person who can’t really sit down, almost to a fault,” Charlie said. “I think that’s one of the things that makes him good at what he does.”

Charlie is now a political communication student at George Washington University, a major he attributes to his father’s influence. Rybak’s daughter, Grace, is in high school at Breck, a private Episcopalian school.

Gov. Rybak?

After six years in his current position, Rybak hasn’t yet decided if he’ll seek re-election in 2009, or possibly run for the state’s highest office in 2010.

Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said having “Mayor of Minneapolis” on a résumé isn’t necessarily helpful when seeking statewide office.

“There’s sort of a suspicion of the big city and the politics that go on in the city,” said Munnich, who unsuccessfully sought the DFL endorsement for the Minneapolis mayoral seat in the ’70s. “That’s the common wisdom, but in politics, rules are always broken.”

For now, Rybak seems happy with his current position.

Back in the career center at Patrick Henry High School, a student asked Rybak what he plans to do after his stint as mayor.

He replied he doesn’t know yet.

“I need career counseling,” he said.